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Photographer Yoon Gil Jung

“The painting-like photographs on traditional Korean handmade paper, my strong will of life”

I used to think that only an expensive camera could make good a photo.After I saw Yoon Gil Jung’s photographs, I realized that it was photographer’s mind not a camera that makes a good picture.In his images, you can feel wind.

The wind in his mind fully exists in his pictures. I met Yoon prior to his exhibition, Pictureque-Poem/ Picture, which opened May 28, 2014 in DaeGu Culture& Art Center following the same exhibition in Seoul.

Like a landscape in a dream, Yoon’s photos on traditional Korean handmade paper are mysterious.The wind that blows from the right toleft in the background of a cloudy sky also blows in my mind. The fallen tree at the edge of a swamp, possibly broken by the wind, is a reflection of the photographer who stopped at the end of ceaseless competition.

Yoon Gil Jung was not a full-time photographer. He is a CEO of the company,“1st Band”, in which mostly does business with other major companies. His successful life was held back by thyroid cancer about 5 years ago and that became his motivation to be a photographer. After the cancer operation, he made a decision not to live as before. As soon as he left the hospital, he drove across the country for a week and took photos thoughtlessly.

“It would have been a lot harder if I didn’t have a camera. Looking back, the camera was my only method for healing. Even though I could barely swallow food because of the chemotherapy, I was able to overcome my pain through photography where I found a new world.”
The trees in his photographs almost looked real. The branch was broken by the wind and the soul was hurt, but still shook in the wind. This was us, not the trees.

“I cannot forget the damaged trees all over the foggy field… Between the rooted land and the windy sky, trees accept the given environment and improve their lives. Even though trees compete with others in case there is not enough space in between them, they know how to share one side and put out branches to the other… Where I went to take photographs, I found many fallen trees. They fell down because of the soft ground in the marsh. Their roots revealed and trunks fallen on the ground, however their branches are raised toward the sky. At first, I felt sorry for those fallen trees, but one day, I understood that they are living new lives. Now, they do not need to fight against the heavy wind! I used to think that it would be the end of life if I do not win competitions in my life. While I observed these trees, I realized how happy to live a life that is aside competitions.”

In the beginning, Yoon mostly captured pretty or picturesque landscapes. One day, he began to talk to a broken and damaged tree. The fallen tree, whichput its root in the ground again,began to bud, teachinghim a wisdom, “A fail is not the end but a beginning of a new life.” He had a unique experience to helphimself through the conversation with trees.

He focused on the disability at that time. He photographed daily lives of disabled people in Nodule Disabled School and drove to Shihwaho to take pictures of trees in stormy weather.
“During the shooting, I realized that the disabled people are the same as us who feel love and anger and struggle to live everyday lives. Because of this experience, I was interested in the weak or isolated existences. One of them were trees that collapsed, but still showa strong vitality. We are not that different from those trees. I realized that there are different hopes that can open a better future for both the fallen trees and me, who experienced the frustration from cancer.”

Yoon Gil Jung was invited to the DongGang International Photo Festival which opens at the end of July. At Dong Gang Photo Festival he will present a body of strong black & white images that record his self-performance in the background of empty houses in a redevelopment area, Bugahyeon-Dong,to show his engraved memories ofhis father’s traces.

S: what was the reason photogeaphing shaken or collapsed trees instead ofstraight or strong pine trees like Bae Byung Woo’s works?
Y: I wanted talk about my story. They survived, but still shaky in the wind made sense for me. In my first exhibition, the three people show, I made something aesthetically pleasant to keep. The trees in this series are quite similar to our lives. The trees experience failure but still survive like us. I used to believe that a failure was the end until I observed the new way of living as fallen trees. I had so many conversations with trees. Each tree in each image has a different story.

S: Are you planning on making more works with the theme of weakness or disability?
Y: There is not a photographer who does work about “disability” in Korea. My theme is disability. It is a kind of mental disability that the whole country is in trauma since the tragedy of SeWol ferry. I would like to work about disabilities with different subject matters in various categories. Eventually, the mental disability of people in the modern society will be my goal to work with. Including common stress that we do not take seriously, people in this era have this on some level.

S: You took pictures of severely handicapped people and had an exhibition.
Y: I began to photograph them because one of my high-school seniors, who runs a disabled school, requested it. People at that school hate the words, “normal” and “ordinary”. They would rather say “the disabled” and “the non-disabled”. They are severely disabled, but they do not consider it inconvenient because that is the way they have been. At first, I did not have this awareness. After spending time taking pictures and communicating with them, I finally understood that they are people just like us who love and live their lives.

They usually hate having their pictures taken. Since they are severely disabled, their facial expression is more distorted when they see a camera. So when I brought pictures of their smiling faces or photogenic shots, they liked it a lot. One at a time, I became a friend with them. There was one person who rejected being photographed. One day, he asked that if I would take an ID picture for him, he would be my model. He needed an ID picture because he lost his ID, but there was no photo studio he could get to with his wheelchair. After I took his ID picture, he finally became my model.

Since I knew they do not have many pictures of themselves, I framed the portraits of them and gave them as gifts. While I was working on this project, my life had changed a lot. I used to drink and play golf for business meetings, but while I worked with the disabled I sold my country club membership and golf clubs. For the sake of my conscience, I could not accept doing to take photographs of the disabled while playing golf. Photography made me appreciate trivial things like grass and wind. Photography changed my life.

S: Even though you said that your treatment was from looking at trees, you are considered as a successful man from other people’s perspectives.
Y: I have many scars inside of me. My father passed away when I was young and I had a lot of stress to pay his debt. After I got a job at a big company, I struggled not to fail. When I was young, we moved over 30 times from one leased room to another. These traumas and scars were slowly treated through photography. That is the power of photography.

S: All the images in this exhibition are printed on traditional Koreanhandmade papers.
Y: Photography is more than clicking a camera shutter. If an image does not contain a photographer’s philosophy or humanistic element, that is not a photograph. My traditional Korean handmade paper prints are inspired by a New York based photographer, Lee Jung Jin who works with Korean traditional rice paper. Since I was intrigued by traditional Korean handmade paper, I found a master of Korean traditional Korean handmade paper and applied it in my work. Using the traditional Korean handmade paper, I wanted to add more dreamlike qualities to my tree images. I am glad with my choice.

S: You are both a businessman and a photographer. Which career would you choose if you needed to?
W: My children answer “photographer” for the question asked at school about your father’s job. They do not care much about my business. Photography is very interesting and attractive. What I do with photography is the healing process of a disability or wound. Even if you fail in competitions or are isolated in society, there is another life. Through photography, I realized that I now live that “other life”.

Since the tragedy of SeWol ferry,Korean society began to self-examine our value criterion: we might be only focused on economic growth such as getting a bigger house or making more money. Our society values money and success, but value criterions need to changed. People would feel the inconvenience without money, but still, money is not everything for a happy life. My indulged theme will be disability. The destroyed environment is also a disability of the nature that we created. There are so many things to photograph.

Seo Myung Soo (the head of politics & economic department in Seoul)